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With Grammy nomination, Silversun Pickups shift into overdrive

L.A.'s most successful indie band goes from playing in front of Spaceland's shimmery curtain to the Staples Center.

January 24, 2010|By Margaret Wappler >>>
  • NOMINEES: The Silversun Pickups are keyboard player Joe Lester, left, drummer Christopher Guanlao, bassist Nikki Monninger and lead singer/guitarist Brian Aubert.
NOMINEES: The Silversun Pickups are keyboard player Joe Lester, left,… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)

The Silversun Pickups are the local indie embodiment of the famous quote from the Irish writer Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
Bands should be so lucky to experience such crushing defeats: The heroes of the Silver Lake scene, the fiery but focused Silversun Pickups are competing against acts including MGMT, the Ting Tings, the Zac Brown Band and R&B mistress Keri Hilson for the best new artist prize at this year's Grammy Awards ceremony, set to take place next Sunday in L.A.
It's recognition that's been a long time coming. Since the early aughts, local prognosticators have been attempting to divine, largely unsuccessfully, which of the bands toiling in the Silver Lake/Echo Park circuit were most likely to achieve mainstream success. The Pickups were never the sure bet -- they didn't even release any music until the EP "Pikul" in 2005.
But over the course of two full-length albums, they've eclipsed other groups to become the most successful indie band in L.A., energizing crowds with stormy rock that often breaks into relief just when the suspense is at its most dizzying high. The quartet has won fans on the basis of that dramatic sound, which slowly gained widespread exposure after 2006, when the song "Lazy Eye" began popping up in television commercials and on radio.

Released last year, the Silversun Pickups' second album, "Swoon," landed at No. 7 on the U.S. pop charts, with its first single, "Panic Switch," topping Billboard's Alternative Songs chart in July -- it's currently at No. 13 on the tally. Accordingly, the band has long since graduated from playing in front of Spaceland's sparkly curtain to bigger stages, including that of Indio's mammoth Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival last year, where they performed just ahead of headliner Paul McCartney (though on a smaller stage).

Over the last decade, the musicians have taken to heart the sentiment expressed by Beckett so long ago: Don't get rattled by success or failure, just keep trying. Or, to put it in the words of guitarist and lead vocalist Brian Aubert, "We learn a lot by failing in front of people."

Inauspicious beginning

Strip away the rising rock star status and Silversun Pickups are simply a gang of slouchy-jeaned hipsters who like to buy records, drink beer and watch their friends' bands, like Twilight Sleep, which features Aubert's fiancée Tracy Marcellino on lead vocals, or Dangerbird Records label mates Sea Wolf.

All four members, including bassist Nikki Monninger (who co-founded the band circa 2000 with then-roommate Aubert), keyboardist Joe Lester and drummer Christopher Guanlao, grew up in Southern California, and they all have deep connections to the Silver Lake area. The liquor store that sits at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Parkman Avenue partly inspired their name.

Their easygoing chemistry is apparent, as they trade affectionate stories about Jack Kennedy, a former member of an earlier incarnation of the band and a solo artist who goes by only his last name. Even their recollection of important moments in band history, such as the time in 2003, two years before "Pikul," when they played with the late Elliott Smith, Silver Lake's beautiful sad prince, and the alluring Rilo Kiley, is remembered with a certain casual fondness.

"We walked off the stage feeling really confident and comfortable," Aubert, 35, said recently over brunch at Local, a neighborhood restaurant owned by friends of the distortion rockers. "We knew this was something we wanted to do all the time."

After that performance, Aubert was too wired to sleep, so he and his buddy Todd Clifford of the now defunct record store Sea Level in Echo Park, watched a marathon of "Freaks and Geeks." "I got sucked in," Aubert shrugged.

No matter how loose he might seem in the moment, Aubert always seems to have a current of intensity running beneath. While he is unquestionably the leader of the band -- he's the songwriter and its most expressive member, often running his hands through his dark hair or staring directly with his blue eyes -- Monninger's dry wit sets the tone for the conversation.

"Our first bio included a picture of our cat Cauliflower because we didn't have any songs yet," laughed Monninger, 35, folding her hands in front of her in one of her playfully demure gestures. "We didn't know what we were doing, but people kept offering shows, so we kept playing them."

Lester, 33, and Guanlao, 34, aren't as talkative in an interview setting, but their enthusiasm is still obvious, especially for performing live. Lester, who speaks in measured tones, noted how the stage can broaden any song's scope, physically drawing more from the players, while the long-haired Guanlao, with an excited gleam in his eye, talked about how "Swoon" expanded the band's comfort zone: "It was all about finding a song that did something new."

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